Not too long ago, a community member questioned the value of using cops for youth crime prevention programs. After all, isn’t it more important for cops on the street to concentrate on putting bad guys in jail? Can’t we just hire some recreation aides to talk to kids about staying away from gangs and drugs?
I’ve had to deal with such questions over and over again during my career. I guess the best way to address such questions is to share a simple but profound story.
Years ago, when I was a sergeant working a community policing team, we were on foot patrol in a neighborhood known for drugs, gangs and just about every sort of crime you can imagine.
While walking the neighborhood with one of the officers, a boy of about 9 or 10 approached us. He told me his name was Jorge. Wary at first, he joined us as we walked. He wanted to know my name and what I was doing. I told him about the problems with gangs and drugs, and counseled him never to get involved with either. He promised he wouldn’t. It was probably no more than a 10-minute conversation.
Fast forward four years later.
Police units were at a car stop wrapping up an investigation after arresting some suspects. Out of the crowd of bystanders a young teenage boy walked over and called me by name.
“Sgt. Vargas! Sgt. Vargas!” he yelled.
I walked over and said hello. He asked if I remembered him. I didn’t recall ever meeting him.
He told me his name was Jorge.
“Remember? We talked when you were walking in the neighborhood,” he reminded me.
Jorge recalled everything about our conversation — how we talked about drugs and gangs, and how he promised he would never use drugs or join a gang. It was a conversation I’ve had numerous times with hundreds of kids.
Jorge was so proud to share that he had stuck to his promise and hadn’t done either. We talked for a while. Afterwards, it really struck me how a 14-year-old boy could remember everything from a short conversation four years earlier.
Mind you, I wasn’t as old as I am now but darned if I can recall a 10-minute conversation with just about anyone four years later — that is, unless there was something very significant about the person I talked to. In this case, for Jorge, that person was a guy with a badge and a uniform.
There’s just something magical that happens when you mix cops and kids together. Suddenly, a child’s attention span increases as they latch onto every word that comes out of your mouth. What we say sticks with them. This can make all the difference in the world to any child who will, while growing up, typically face the harsh reality of drugs and gangs.
Every criminal started out as a little boy or girl that at some point never had a significant role model in his or her life. Who better than the men and women who wear a uniform?
It’s been a few years since I retired. I continue to work with kids. But there’s a big difference when I talk to them now. When I tell them I used to be a cop, they’re somewhat interested. While I know I have an impact, the magic just isn’t quite what it used to be.
I really miss that.